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JMU lacrosse celebrates a goal.

Every team is defined by a unifying motto.

One of the most common choices, “family,” pulls at the emotional connection between the coaches and athletes as they band together to take on a season’s challenges. Other phrases, like “trained to go,” evoke a work ethic instilled throughout the program to ensure there’s no other team working harder on and off the field. Both messages bring the team together so it can begin to check off the goals lying ahead.

JMU lacrosse, a mid-major program off the heels of its first ever national championship, hasn’t established a checklist of goals or list of hopeful accomplishments for the 2019 season. The Dukes weren’t expected to be the 22-1 team last year or the one that earned six top-10 victories, so they haven’t settled for the standards other teams set for them as a mid-major program.

This year’s team is centered around one word. It’s a word that won’t disappoint or bring false hopes and will allow the coaches and players to maximize every opportunity and bring out their highest potential: limitless.

“We set the bar so high last year, showing that it doesn’t matter that we’re a mid-major program,” head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe said. “We showed that we can overcome barriers and put ourselves out there to compete for a national championship. If we were able to do all that, why should we put limits on ourselves?”

The no-limit approach has seen JMU carve through its non-conference schedule to a 12-3 record with an average margin of victory of over seven and a half goals. Every team the Dukes have faced outside the top 10, they’ve dominated — but it’s been a different story against the nation’s elite.

JMU’s three top-10 opponents — North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland — have outscored the Dukes by a combined 29 goals and handed them each of their three losses. The JMU offense, still getting used to its new personnel and rotation, shot 28.8% in those three games compared to 47.6% in its eight victories.

“We’re a little stagnant and passive when we move on offense,” senior attacker and leading scorer Hanna Haven said. “We’ve added some new plays in here and there to keep our offense fresh, and hopefully that keeps everyone moving through the rest of the season.”

Although the results appear underwhelming, the early awareness of what the team is missing points toward potential growth. JMU’s opportunity to face some of the best teams in the country well before the postseason begins gives the Dukes over a month to experiment with new approaches, lineups and play-calls.

“It’s so important that we play these top-10 teams because we see the toughest competition,” junior attacker Maddie McDaniel said. “We have the experiences and then we can look back and see what they did, see what we did and then we can bring all that together for the next time we might see them.”

One of those early adjustments aided the Dukes’ lack of success on the draw. After losing the draw-control battle 22-5 against UNC and 14-10 against Virginia Tech, Klaes-Bawcombe put senior defender Caroline Sdanowich on the circle to help out the 6-foot McDaniel in the middle.

The change has paid off tremendously. The Dukes have only lost the draw-control advantage once since then — both Sdanowich and McDaniel are among the top seven CAA athletes in draw controls per game.

“I just thought that my grittiness and my hard-work aspect would help Maddie box out and get the balls that are on the ground,” Sdanowich said. “It was one of our strengths last year, and we started to struggle in the beginning of the year, so I talked to the coaches about bringing me into the fold.”

Not only does this limitless mindset address the team as a whole, it speaks to each individual’s capabilities. While JMU returned six of its starters from the 2018 national championship game, several players have found new roles with an increase in playing time and have turned into stars in the making.

Junior midfielder Halle Duenkel and junior attacker Logan Brennan are two of the Dukes’ top three scorers this season. Despite making their first career starts less than two months ago, the two have combined for 40 goals and have stepped up in an offense that has struggled at times. Brennan burst onto the scene with 11 goals in her first three games, while Duenkel has put together five hat tricks in her last seven matches.

JMU’s tough non-conference schedule and the early tweaks it has made have the Dukes entering conference play as the 10th-best team in the nation. With eight games left until the NCAA tournament, the players and coaching staff will use this final month to develop its younger rotation, hoping to maximize their offensive consistency. While the team has set no limits for what it hopes to achieve, the Dukes are eager to pick up right where they left off.

“We’re hungry,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “We know we had a special year last year, but now, we’re looking to show that we’re not going anywhere.”

Contact Blake Pace at blakeandrewpace@gmail.com. For more lacrosse coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.